Fri, Nov 02, 2007 - Page 6 News List

French entangled in Chadian child smuggling case

THE GUARDIAN , PARIS

Bertrande Allemand, a clown who entertains sick children in hospitals in rural France, describes herself as someone who wants to ease the suffering in the world. So when a friend told her about a French aid association planning to evacuate hundreds of Darfur orphans and place them with families in France, she went online and signed up.

Unable to afford the standard requested donation of around 2,000 euros (US$2,888), she petitioned friends and local businesses to donate to the charity directly. She scraped together the 90-euro fee, went to meetings in Paris and prepared to decorate a bedroom for the orphan who she imagined would be aged five.

Allemand, a 33-year-old single mother of toddler twins, was already fostering a handicapped Romanian orphan who has lived with her for five years. It hadn't been easy in her tiny village of La Creuse, in rural central France.

She knew that taking in a black child would be even more difficult in what she called a rural climate of racism and small-mindedness. There are no black people in her village. But she felt the child would be better off in France.

"I wanted to save an orphan from war and hunger. I wanted there to be one less child suffering in the world. None of us were doing anything wrong," she said.

Tuesday, seven French people from the association Zoe's Ark remained in detention in Chad, charged with abduction and fraud after they were stopped trying to fly 103 children out of the impoverished African country which borders Sudan's Darfur region. Two French journalists and seven Spanish crew members of the plane they had chartered were also being held. The French accused face hard labor of up to five to 20 years if convicted.

Zoe's Ark, a group set up by a French fireman to help tsunami victims in 2005, has claimed it was evacuating Darfur orphans to be fostered by French families. But Chadian and French authorities say the operation was illegal. Some of the children, aged three to 10, were allegedly bandaged to make them look ill and the UN believes many are from Chad and not orphans at all.

As the French government negotiates with Chad over the fate of the detained men and women, French intellectuals, politicians and humanitarian figures debated whether the 300 or so French families who had signed up to take in children were the willing victims of an adoption racket or whether they were well-meaning but hopelessly naive.

Chad's president has accused Zoe's Ark of child trafficking, perhaps planning pedophile abuse or the sale of their organs. One French aid group warned of "humanitarian mercenaries" and genuine French adoption associations said they had raised the alarm over the group months ago.

But most of the hopeful "host" families in France still support Zoe's Ark, denying they had wanted to adopt or take part in an illegal operation. The families, most of whom paid between 2,000 euros and 6,000 euros to Zoe's Ark, have planned street protests throughout France this weekend.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner hinted at his sympathy for the families, saying he was sad for the people who were "sincere or abused."

While most of the families back Zoe's Ark, some who gave donations have begun legal action for fraud.

In Chad yesterday, several hundred locals gathered outside the governor's office in the eastern town of Abeche, where the Europeans were being held. Some chanted: "No to the slave trade, no to child trafficking."

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